Exile and the Prophetic: The face of war

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
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This post is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

Strange days are upon us. The war in Afghanistan continues. Gaza is heating up once again.

Juxtapositions are part of life but sometimes they’re too large. These days, I can’t help but think of the painter, Salvador Dali, the master of surrealism.

Our American political landscape is beginning to look like an inverted Dali painting. Time clocks are expanding; the desert landscape is fluid. It reminds me of Dali’s 1931 painting, ‘The Persistence of Memory.’

Yet Dali’s dream has become a nightmare. There’s carnage everywhere. It seems more like Dali’s 1940 painting, ‘The Face of War.’

‘The Face of War’ depicts a disembodied face hovering against a barren desert landscape. The face looks like a corpse. Serpents swarm around it. In the face’s mouth and eye sockets are identical faces.

The larger face looks like it will exist forever. Some say the painting represents the infinity of death, others the ever presence of war.

The Jewish landscape feels much the same as the American landscape. Whether its worse is open to debate. For Jews, though, perhaps the American and Israeli landscapes have merged. A thorough assimilation has occurred without our noticing it.

Forget the Jewish intermarriage and low birth-rate warnings that we used to hear so much about. There’s a more significant assimilation mirror on the wall.

The America/Israel isn’t a Dali dreamscape. It’s the real thing.

On the American scene, take the resignation of CIA director, David Petraeus. It’s a scandal that continues to unfold. In his New Yorker blog post, ‘The Petraeus Illusion,’ John Lee Anderson offers up this interesting analysis of Petraeus and our Dali-like political landscape:

The motive for David Petraeus’s resignation as director of the C.I.A.—the exposure of an affair—seems such a lesser thing than MacArthur’s, but his offense is so much more in keeping with our downsized days, in which the tawdry and intimate have crept inexorably into the public sphere, even as the public exaltation of celebrities has been both magnified and distorted.

Petraeus’s downfall is only as great as we choose to make it. He was an exceptional military officer, and he helped steer a turnaround in what had been a hopeless, bloody mess of a war in Iraq. But his lionization by admiring and opportunistic politicians and fawning journalists and biographers—such as Paula Broadwell, the woman he was involved with—has been craven and boundless: Petraeus as America’s Prometheus. This derived in part from our habit of turning flesh-and-blood men into Paul Bunyans, but it was also the product of a gigantic official spin campaign in which the Bush Administration sought, through Petraeus, to retell the U.S. war in Iraq as a success story.

‘Our downsized days’ – filled with illusions. The ‘gigantic official spin campaign’ that retells Iraq as a success story. ‘Our public exaltation of celebrities has been both magnified and distorted.’ What more needs to be said?

If only Dali were alive. The images he would have to paint with.

In the world of political spin, defeat becomes victory. Soldiers in a senseless war are welcomed home as ‘wounded warriors.’ Of course, it is difficult for them to find jobs or schedule consecutive appointments at Veteran’s Hospitals for their ailments, trauma included.

‘Caring for our wounded warriors is our highest priority.’ How many campaign speeches have used that line? Amazing, it just doesn’t seem to get done.

Valorizing war is as old as politics. The ‘heroic warrior’ distortion becomes the reality – for some. Yet everyone in their right mind knows that in American political life and sloganeering the war in Iraq – and Afghanistan – and everywhere else America goes – has an extremely short political shelf life. Did you notice how little was said about Iraq and Afghanistan this election cycle?

American soldiers – and the ‘natives’ of these various (for us) far-off places – are left to inhabit the Dali-like landscape they’ve actually been living – and fleeing – and dying – in. Their experienced shelf life is endless.

Now Israel – ‘in our downsized (ethical) days.’ The ‘gigantic official spin campaign’ that retells Israel as a success story. ‘Our public exaltation of (Israel) has been both magnified and distorted.’ What more needs to be said?

The ‘heroic warrior’ distortion is present there, too. It seems, though, that in Israel, the shelf-life of war is rarely thought about. War is a way of life. Occupation is a permanent war. Even when the valor disappears, war continues.

In the broader public, on the American political side, we don’t hear Iraqi’s speaking their own story. In the broader American public and in the Jewish mainstream, we don’t hear Palestinians speaking their own story. They don’t get to paint the surreal landscape they live within.

If Iraqis and Palestinians were asked which Dali landscape speaks to their experience, they would choose ‘The Face of War.’

How would Dali paint David Petraeus and his disastrous ‘victory?’ Israel and its permanent war footing would be a challenge even for Dali.

We live in a fully assimilated, permanently militarized Dali-like landscape. 1940 doesn’t seem like ancient history. Did we ever leave those years behind?

About Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is retired Director and Professor of Jewish Studies at Baylor University and author of The Heartbeat of the Prophetic which can be found at Amazon and www.newdiasporabooks.com

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